RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — For the last two weeks, consumer investigator Steve Sbraccia has been reporting about a contractor who took $34,000 for home repairs then disappeared after doing only about a quarter of the work.

After seeing that series of reports, some viewers wanted to know how can they protect themselves from a situation like that?

So, CBS 17 went to the Better Business Bureau and the North Carolina Attorney General for advice on how to guard against home improvement fraud.

Last year in North Carolina, residents spent nearly $6 billion on home improvements. 

Some of that money went to contractors who took it and disappeared.

“Home improvement scams are defiantly in the top 10,” said Alyssa Gutierrez of BBB of Eastern North Carolina.

The BBB says many fly-by-night scammers will approach their would-be victims unsolicited.

“A lot of times they’ll say we’re working on a neighbor’s house or it may be after a storm and they say you might have some damage. So you really have to be aware of the door-to door people,’’ said Gutierrez.

She says door-to-door solicitations “can range from someone who is trying to fix your roof, to sweeping your chimney, asking to clean your gutters or asking about your furnace and your HVAC.”

Before hiring a contractor make sure to: 

  • Get references and check them out
  • Get multiple quotes
  • Check the contractor’s license
  • Get it all in writing

The attorney general says a customer should never pay for the work up front, instead only give the contractor a small deposit.

“People can disappear all the time and that’s why we urge people to dole out the money in a conservative fashion,” said North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein. “If you get too far out and make something like a $20,000 payment, you run the risk of the guy fleeing”

Stein says to also ask to see the contractor’s insurance policy or bond and then contact the insurance company to verify coverage, especially for roofing, painting or tree removal services.  

So how do you check out a contractor?  

The Better Business Bureau’s website will indicate if there have been complaints about a company, and how they rank. 

Because that website is nationally based, it’s possible to see if the contractor has operated in other states besides North Carolina.

The North Carolina Licensing Board For General Contractors will indicate if a contractor has a valid license and will investigate contractor complaints. 

Customers can submit a contractor complaint online and also obtain information and forms for the Homeowners Recovery Fund if they were ripped off by a contractor at that same website.

To check the license of an electrician, potential customers can go here

HVAC contractors and plumbers are also regulated by the North Carolina Board of Plumbing, Heating, and Fire Sprinkler Contractors. It offers both an online license checking service and complaint form

In this state, a homeowner only needs to use a licensed contractor if the repair job is for $30,000 or more, but the BBB’s Gutierrez recommends using a licensed contractor regardless of how much or how little the repairs or improvements will cost.

With a licensed contractor, there are more options if things go wrong.

Remember, don’t be pressured to make an on-the-spot decision about a contractor. That’s a red flag.

If there have been verbal agreements with a contractor, make sure those changes are included in a written contract before signing.